Connectivity: The India-Bangladesh land bridge
The political partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 did not have to lead to economic partition, but that is ultimately what happened. This did not take place right away, and many had believed that the borders of India and Pakistan's eastern and western flanks were demarcations that would allow for the movement of people and commerce. It was as late as the India-Pakistan war of 1965 that the veins and capillaries of trade were strangulated. In the east, in what was to become Bangladesh just a few years later, the river ferries and barges that connected Kolkata with the deltaic region, and as far up as Assam, were terminated. The metre-gauge railway lines now stopped at the frontier, and through-traffic of buses and trucks came to a halt. The latest act of separation was for India to put up an elaborate barbed-wire fence along much of the 4000 km border, a project that is nearly complete. Today, what mainly passes under these wires are Bangladeshi migrants seeking survival in the faraway metropolises of India – and contraband.
|Photo credit: Sworup Nhasiju
It was in January 2010 that Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Manmohan Singh signed the broad-ranging communiqué in New Delhi. As a marker of dramatically improved relations between Dhaka and New Delhi, the agreement includes the Bangladeshi promise to allow transit facilities to India through its territory, and India's commitment to energise bilateral commerce by bringing down tariff and non-tariff barriers.
After years of obdurate standoff, the India-Bangladesh opening became an imperative for the New Delhi government, the states of the Indian Northeast and for Bangladesh. As far as the Northeast is concerned, the conversion of Bangladesh from a semi-hostile neighbour to an enthusiastic market would hold the prospect of enhanced economic autonomy. No longer would the region be kept at arm's length from the port of Chittagong, and, starting with haat bazaars at the frontier, economic efficiency could be sought through trade.
| Working relationship: Prime Minister Singh welcomes his counterpart to the presidential palace, 11 January 2010
Photo credit: Reuters
Against the wall of mistrust, what does Bangladesh have that is so crucial to India? The answer lies in one word: transit. And the most significant concession made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the New Delhi talks in January 2010 – some would say courageously, others rashly – was to override the mindset against providing transit. In essence, she decided not to over-negotiate.
The issue of transit holds near-mythical powers in the mind of many a Dhaka commentator, who believe this to be the only handle that Bangladesh has on its larger neighbour. The deltaic Bangladesh stands between mainland India and the seven states of the Northeast. The Siliguri corridor, a narrow stretch (sometimes just 21 km wide) between the northwestern head of Rajhsahi Division and Jhapa district of southeastern Nepal, is the only access for Indian transmission lines, road and rail. Transport through Bangladesh is vital for India on several planes: for the mainland to reach the Northeast in a straight line, for the landlocked Northeast to get to the sea, and to access Southeast Asia through the Bangladeshi flats rather than the roundabout northeastern hills.
In December 2008, following two years of military-backed caretaker government, Sheikh Hasina's Awami League swept into government in a landslide (263 seats in Parliament out of 300), on the plank of change, employment, law and order, and long-pending war-crimes trials relating to the events of 1971. The decisive Awami League victory allowed the prime minister to unabashedly reach out to New Delhi. The political alignment in Dhaka was complemented in New Delhi, with the reinstatement of Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA-II) government in a stronger position than the earlier (UPA-I), following the elections of April-May 2009. Making a deal with Bangladesh was important to India's economist prime minister, whose belief in soft borders had been stymied on the Pakistan front. (In January 2007, addressing the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in New Delhi, he had said: 'I dream of a day … when one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live.')